Volt by 2010 stretch, says GM

General Motors Corp's estimated 2010 timeline for production of its electric vehicle could prove challenging but remains the company's target, a top executive said Monday.

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DETROIT – General Motors Corp’s estimated 2010 timeline for production of its electric vehicle could prove challenging but remains the company’s target, a top executive said Monday.

“The end of 2010 is a big stretch,” GM’s vice chairman and product chief Bob Lutz told reporters at the North American International Auto Show.

“It means everything has to go right and so far everything has gone right,” Lutz said. “Right now we are very confident of getting it but normally for a program this complex and with a technology the company has never executed before, you would like to give yourself more time.”

As the race to bring a mass-market, rechargeable electric vehicle to the market heats up, GM executives have said the Volt is crucial to the largest U.S. automaker’s efforts to snag the environmental technology crown from Japanese rival Toyota Motor Corp.

Raising the stakes in the race, Toyota on Monday said it plans to market a test fleet of plug-in vehicles to companies or government agencies by the end of 2010 – providing a timeline on production for the first time.

Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe told reporters the automaker has already begun preparations to build a factory that will produce the next-generation lithium-ion batteries needed for plug-ins and purely electric vehicles.

The comments marked the clearest statement yet from the Japanese automaker of its commitment to plug-in vehicle technology and amounted to a direct challenge to GM, which has won widespread attention for its announced plans.

Unlike earlier gasoline-electric hybrids, which run on a system that twins battery power and a combustion engine, plug-ins are designed for short trips powered entirely by an electric motor and a battery charged through a socket at home.

GM is designing the Volt to run 40 miles on battery power alone, with an on-board gasoline-powered engine as a backup.

The Volt would be outfitted with new lithium-ion battery packs, which are more powerful than the nickel-metal hydride batteries that are being used in many hybrid cars.

Automakers say lithium-ion technology remains the biggest challenge in producing a plug-in as they try to lower the cost of the batteries and boost their power and storage capacity.

GM is testing lithium-ion battery technology developed by its two suppliers – A123 Systems and Compact Power Inc, a subsidiary of South Korea’s LG Chem.

Lutz said the battery technology has shown no problems so far and a working lithium ion battery pack for the Volt could be demonstrated by June 2008 – but the Volt still requires a complete re-engineering of a standard passenger vehicle.

“We have been testing the batteries and so far we have not encountered any battery problems at all… in fact they are outperforming what manufacturers said they would do.”

“But producing the Volt is more than just throwing a bunch of batteries into a normal car.”

Lutz said a traditional passenger car would have to be completely re-engineered to make it a functional electric vehicle.

“We need an electric-powered air conditioning system which does not exist,” he said. “All of the components like electric power steering, the stereo, the windshield wipers… everything has to be re-engineered to use as little power as possible.”

“That’s where the development efforts will be focused.”

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